California officials reject federal government’s push to administer old science tests

October 25, 2016

Sophomores attend chemistry class at Skyline High School in Oakland, Calif., Wednesday, Sept. 17, 2014. Photos by Alison Yin for EdSource

California education officials have decided that students will take only one statewide standardized test in science this spring, a pilot test based on new standards known as the Next Generation Science Standards

The decision, made in recent weeks, pits state education officials against the U.S. Department of Education, which told California officials in a Sept. 30 letter that they must continue to administer the older science based on standards adopted in 1998, and publish the scores on those tests.

California has been administering the multiple choice, paper-and-pencil California Standards Tests in science to 5th, 8th and 10th graders until as recently as last year, as required by the No Child Left Behind law.

But the State Board of Education adopted the new science standards in 2013, and educators had planned to administer a pilot version of a new online test aligned with those standards this spring. It had requested a federal waiver from having to give the old test as well, but the U.S. Department of Education denied its request. 

Jessica Barr, an administrator in the California Department of Education’s Assessment Development and Administration Division, told teachers at the California Science Education Conference in Palm Springs on Saturday that California is forging its own path forward and plans to replace the old test with the pilot test this spring.

“We need to move on,” Barr said, an announcement that met with applause from 250 teachers in the room. “We need to transition, and we need to allow teachers themselves to transition to the new standards.”

“There’s no showdown” with the federal government, she emphasized in in an interview with EdSource. She did not elaborate.

The state plans to administer the pilot science test to students in the 5th and 8th grades and one high school grade this school year, then administer a more complete field test the following year. Most students will take the full test in 2018-19; students with disabilities will take a specially designed test in 2019-20. 

“It had been very disconcerting to hear from the state that we’d still have to do the old test,” said John Robertson, an instructor services specialist with Riverside Unified School District. “There was a tremendous amount of uncertainty around the process, but now I’m feeling more confident with this latest news.”

Peter Tira, a spokesman with the California Department of Education, confirmed Barr’s account, saying that the state is moving forward without the current test.

“We are moving full speed ahead on pilot testing,” he said.

Federal officials are concerned that California will not publish student scores on the pilot or field tests based on the new standards. State officials have said they cannot report those student scores or school data to parents, educators or the public because the scores would not be statistically valid.

“The state has not demonstrated that the requested waiver would advance student achievement or maintain or improve transparency in reporting to parents and the public on student achievement and school performance, including the achievement of subgroups of students,” Ann Whalen, senior advisor to U.S. Education Secretary John B. King, Jr., wrote in the letter to State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson and Michael Kirst, the president of the State Board of Education.

The letter from Whalen offered state officials alternatives that it said would satisfy its concerns. Those could include:

“Engaging in some or all of these practices would help meet the requirements under the law and would not require a waiver,” Whalen wrote. But all of her suggestions would still involve administering the old test. 

The department has given the state until Dec. 1 to resubmit its waiver request if it meets conditions outlined in the letter. Barr said that California intends to submit another request for a waiver. On Saturday, she told EdSource that the resubmission of the waiver appeal “may or may not include some of the options” outlined in the Whalen letter, but did not offer details.

U.S. Department of Education spokeswoman Dorie Nolt said that California can submit an appeal of the department’s decision as outlined in the Sept. 30 letter. However, she said, “the department has not received an appeal and cannot speculate on what steps CDE will take to correct the issues identified in the letter.”

Barr’s announcement came as welcome news to many teachers and county offices of education executives in Palm Springs.

John Robertson, an instructor services specialist for science, health and physical education in the Riverside Unified School District, was elated.

“It had been very disconcerting to hear from the state that we’d still have to do the old test,” he said. “There was a tremendous amount of uncertainty around the process, but now I’m feeling more confident with this latest news.”

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